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Category Archives: Law vs Equity

Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse–EXCEPT When . . .


Cropped portion of stereograph

Dunce (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Virtually everyone who’s studied the legal system has heard the maxim that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”.  In other words, you can’t claim to be exempt from liability under a law just because you didn’t know there was such a law.

For example, just because you didn’t know that the speed limit was 45 MPH at a particular stretch in the road will not excuse you from being ticketed for driving 60.  Similarly, you can’t claim to be exempt from being charged with someone’s murder by arguing that you had no idea that murder was a crime.

In fact, presuming that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” makes perfect sense—at least in a legal system that has only a relatively few laws.

For example, under the Ten Commandments, if you’re caught fornicating with your boss’s wife, you can’t argue that—“Gee, I’d never heard that ‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery’—I had no idea that sleeping with my boss’s wife was wrong.”  No one will accept the argument that you were ignorant of one of the only ten laws you’re subject to.

Similarly, there are reportedly 613 “commandments” in the Torah.  It’s harder to know 613 laws, but it’s doable.  Therefore, every Jew is presumed to know those 613 laws and can’t duck liability for breaking any of them on a claim of “ignorance”.

Today, however, we live in a society that is probably generating 613 new laws, rule and regulations (local, state and federal) almost every day (surely, every month).  Our Congress passes laws every day that they don’t bother to read.  Thus, even Congress is truly ignorant of the very laws that it enacts.

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